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Are Video Games Designed to be Addictive?


By Brenda Priddy, Guest Contributor to TechAddiction

NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in guest articles are solely those of the author and are not necessarily the views of TechAddiction and/or Dr. Conrad.

There was a time when video games were sold as a complete package. You would hand over $40 and buy it on a disc or cartridge to play on your console at home. What you did after getting the product wasn't of much concern to its creators, as long as you enjoyed it enough to buy the sequel in a few years’ time. It didn't matter whether you spent all day tackling its challenges or just fifteen minutes in the morning procrastinating before work. However, gaming has changed in the age of online game play and smartphone apps -- and not exactly for the better.

Online and smartphone games are some of the most popular platforms for several reasons: internet access is rarely far away so games are always by your side; they don't have the complexity of a console thereby levelling the playing field for gamers; and most importantly, the games available are generally free to play. At least, they are at first.

The most common way to monetise these free games are via in-game purchases and advertising. Therefore, what you do with the product is now of great concern to its creators. The more you play, the more they make. As a result, video games are now implementing a number of addicting tactics to keep their players hooked.

Addictive Games Are Becoming More Common

It's important to stress that not all games have this problem. There are many designed to be artful, emotional and educational. The excellent Telltale Games 'The Walking Dead' is a perfect example of this. It challenges to you to wrestle with a series of ethical dilemmas in order to keep your group of survivors healthy, and the decisions you make affect the entire story's development. It's a game that is both intellectually stimulating and enforces the idea that your actions have consequences; a message rarely seen in video games where bad actions are usually without penalty, or even given reward.

However, creative video games like this are increasingly uncommon as the industry has becomes such a lucrative field that can be exploited for cheap. It's estimated that a great app for smartphone can be made on a few thousand dollars and some like 'Angry Birds' have gone on to make more than $200 million back. Consequently, it's attracting business people who are driven solely by commerce. These people generally only care about luring users in for financial reward, and the ways they do so are incredibly hazardous.

The Immersive World Of Video Games

Some designers (particularly of online games) pray on the idea that games provide an escape from the real world. The same could be said of any form of entertainment -- movies, television, literature -- but the difference with games is that you are not an observer; you are a citizen. You can live in these worlds and you can interact with them. You can build these worlds and you can destroy them. They become an alternate reality.

In this alternate reality, games give the players an opportunity to fill a void that could not be filled in real life. You can choose how attractive you want to be, where you want to live and what you want to be. You are even free from law and order, and there's the potential to be as rich and popular as you want. It's easy to see the appeal of living in the world of games like this for people who are perhaps outcasts in real life. This is what the lead designer of Settlers Online Teut Weidemann cynically (you might even say disturbingly) refers to as "monetising all the weaknesses of people".

Weidemann also, on a similar note, openly uses the allure of the 'seven deadly sins' to entice his players into joining the world of Settlers Online and make sure they are spending their money within it. This is a strategy adopted by many other games from 'Farmville' to 'Candy Crush Saga' too. High score tables shared on social networks appeal to vanity, encouraging you to aim to be better than everyone else. Providing online opponents to play against and attempt to beat appeals to the idea of anger. And when the challenges get too hard there are always in-game add-ons to avoid the difficult, frustrating work -- a representation of sloth.

Addiction By Design

These manipulative tactics often apply to the mechanics of video games too. Games big and small have psychologists and behavioural scientists on hand to help them understand such techniques. And what exactly are these techniques? Perhaps the most widely discussed is creating a virtual 'Skinner Box' based on the theory by BF Skinner. He argued that the frequency of activity is linked to reward. Therefore, games are made to compel you to carry on button-mashing in order to achieve something. Experience points that will build your character, for example, or higher scores that will unlock new levels. It's the same philosophy applied to slot machine gambling.

These types of strategies have existed in some shape or form since the very beginning of video games. In fact, you wouldn't really have any kind of game, video or otherwise, without them. But the problems begin to arise when they are misused. When they aren't there to be compelling and entertaining but want to addict you. When they try to keep you playing, and playing, and playing in order to increase their advertising revenue or the possibility that you'll buy add ons. Sadly, this is something we are seeing more of in the age of online gaming and smartphone apps.

Jonathan Blow, creator of the game Braid, puts it brilliantly. He says: "I believe that games are important to the future of humanity [but] I think a lot of modern game design is actually unethical... they are predicated on player exploitation."

Author Bio

Brenda Priddy is a passionate technology and telecoms journalist. She runs the website Number Direct where she regularly discusses the latest innovations, writes about the biggest breaking news and shares her predictions for the future.

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Are video games intentionally made to be addictive? Are the designers at fault or are they simply doing their job?

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